What We Teach

The Ethical, Rhetorical, and Practical

Writing and Rhetoric is essentially a course in how to read and write arguments. By “argument,” we do not mean a fight or angry quarrel. Rather, we think of argument as a relationship between writer and reader, speaker and listener. When we make an argument, in this view, we invite others to enter into a dialogue with us, to hear us out, to sit beside us, figuratively speaking, to reason with us about an issue, a problem, or a point of view. We make arguments for many purposes: to persuade, to inform, to learn, to achieve consensus, or perhaps for some combination of all these. As taught in the Writing and Rhetoric course, arguments are understood to be rhetorical, ethical, conventional, and accessible.

Arguments Are Rhetorical

Rhetoric may be defined, broadly, as “the art, practice, and study of human communication” (Lunsford), and argument, more narrowly, as one particular type of rhetorical activity. Arguments involve, the scholar Douglas Walton has written, “the giving of reasons to support or criticize a claim that is questionable, or open to doubt” (Walton 1). We make arguments, in other words, when there is no obvious or widely accepted view of an issue. In the Writing and Rhetoric course, we teach argument as having three interlocking parts: the claim, which is the main idea of the argument; the proofs, or the evidence that supports the claim; and the counter-argument, in which the writer addresses alternative or opposing perspectives. Decisions about how to choose and organize our claims, proofs, and counter-arguments depend on the rhetorical situation, or the urgent need—sometimes called the exigency—to which the argument responds. The rhetorical situation tells us about the audience, purpose, topic, and occasion for the argument. The rhetorical situation will help us decide whether our arguments should be grounded in logos, or the appeal to logic and reason; in pathos, which is the appeal to emotions and values; or in ethos, which communicates the character of the speaker. Many arguments invoke all three forms of proof. What we choose to say when we argue, how we decide to say it, and when it should be said is usually a response to the rhetorical situation.

Arguments Are Ethical

Argument is a fundamentally ethical activity. This is because when we understand argument as a relationship with other people, we become entangled in those questions moral philosophers have for centuries regarded as ethical: How shall I treat others? What kind of person do I want to be? What does it mean to be a good person? For writers, these questions are rephrased: what kind of writer do I wish to be? What are my commitments to my readers? What does it mean to be a “good writer”? Arguments call upon us to express ethical qualities, practices, and attitudes. Our readers are more likely to consider our claims, for example, if readers believe we are knowledgeable and truthful about the things we write. Readers may be more accepting of our arguments if we demonstrate integrity and accountability by providing the necessary evidence to back up our claims. We will have a better chance of influencing readers if we demonstrate that we are open-minded, fair, and intellectually generous when listening to perspectives that differ from our own. Truthfulness, accountability, fairness, intellectual generosity, and the like are examples of what the ancient Greeks called virtues, by which they meant excellent ways of living, and what today we call ethical qualities, dispositions, or habits. When we express such qualities in our arguments, we are practicing what we might call rhetorical virtues, or the spoken or written expressions of truthfulness, fairness, generosity, and others. Rhetorical virtues are the foundations of ethical argument in the Writing and Rhetoric course.

Arguments Are Conventional

To say arguments are conventional means there are certain practices or behaviors that audiences expect when reading an argument. This is especially true in academic arguments. For example, academic arguments typically call for research, which means writers must become familiar with the use of sources, such as databases or archives. Sources need to be documented and cited in specific ways to avoid plagiarism, the use of someone else’s ideas or words without acknowledging the source. This means writers are expected to know the conventions of quoting, paraphrasing, summarizing, and synthesizing, source materials. Other conventions have to do with grammar, syntax, and usage, or using language in ways that meet the expectations of highly educated readers. Students in the Writing and Rhetoric course are introduced to such conventions through the study of the writing process, which includes the practices of planning, researching, drafting, and revising written arguments.

Arguments Are Accessible

To say that arguments are accessible means that readers should be able to engage with our arguments regardless of disability, age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, or other factors. This means recognizing the people have diverse abilities, and that we will be most inclusive when we acknowledge differences when making an argument. The Principles of Universal Design offer useful guidelines concerning the environments, materials, and communication strategies for making arguments.

Despite the format in which the categories of the Rhetorical, Ethical, Conventional, and Accessible are arranged on this page, they are neither hierarchical nor isolated from one another. To the contrary, they are mutually informing and interwoven. All contribute to our development as writers.

Lunsford, Andrea. Some Definitions of Rhetoric. November 8, 2019.
The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. "The 7 Principles." November, 8, 2019.
Walton, Douglas. Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.